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  • Liu Xiaobo on China’s Quest for Democracy: An Introduction

On October 8, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 was being awarded to imprisoned Chinese writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The author of eleven books and hundreds of essays, Liu has been a key figure in the Chinese democracy movement since the events leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. He was jailed in 1989–91 and again in 1996–99. His activities over the past decade included serving as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center and as editor of Democratic China magazine. He was a principal drafter and a prominent signatory of Charter 08, a document—modeled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77—calling for democracy and respect for human rights in China. (Substantial excerpts from Charter 08, in an English translation by Human Rights in China, were published in the “Documents on Democracy” section of the April 2009 issue of the Journal.)

Shortly before the Charter was officially released in December 2008, Liu was detained by the Beijing Public Security Bureau. On 23 June 2009, he was formally arrested on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Brought to trial in December, he was found guilty and sentenced to eleven years of imprisonment. He is currently serving his term at Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province, where his wife Liu Xia was able to visit him and to convey the news that he had won the Nobel Prize. Since then, however, the Chinese government, which has vigorously denounced the award to Liu, has kept Liu Xia under house arrest and is seeking to prevent her or any of Liu’s other relatives or friends from leaving China for the prize ceremony, which is scheduled to take place in Oslo, Norway, on December 10. It is not known whether Liu will be able to issue any statement accepting the prize.

In the pages that follow, we present two of Liu’s most eloquent essays. Both were originally written in 2006 and posted in Chinese on the website They both were translated into English by Human Rights in China and published in issue no. 1, 2010, of its quarterly journal China Rights Forum, along with other writings and statements by Liu and a great deal of useful information about him and his career. Interested readers can find this issue, entitled “Freedom of Expression on Trial in China,” at We are most grateful to Human Rights in China for permission to reprint these essays, which appear here with very minor stylistic changes.

The first of these essays, entitled “Can It Be That the Chinese People [End Page 152] Deserve Only ‘Party-Led Democracy’?” was written in response to the publication by the Information Office of the State Council on 19 October 2005 of “Building of Democratic Politics in China”—the first white paper on democracy-building ever issued by the Communist government of China. Liu shows that this document “is not so much an announcement of the ‘Building of Democratic Politics in China’ as it is a public defense of ‘protecting the dictatorial system of the supremacy of Party authority.’” He laments China’s long history of imperial and dictatorial rule, blaming the “indifference of the populace” even more than repression by the authorities. He ends by saying that “the emergence of a free China” will come not from new policies on the part of those in power but from the “continuous expansion” of power among the people.

The second essay published here, “Changing the Regime by Changing Society,” elaborates on the theme with which the first essay concludes. Liu recognizes that civil society in China is still weak and that it lacks both the capacity and the readiness to change the country’s political system. But he remains hopeful about the future, noting how much the Communist Party’s totalitarian grip on society has loosened since the days of Mao. “An enormous transformation toward pluralism in society has already taken place,” he argues, “and official authority is no longer able to...


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